Rusalka: beautiful painterly film about faith, courage and self-sacrifice in fighting dark forces and vengeance

Alexander Petrov, “Rusalka” (1996)

Often referred to as “The Mermaid” in English, though mermaids and Russian rusalki are quite different creatures, this is a very beautiful and painterly animated short (Petrov painted the scenes in oil on glass) whose story could be based on a folk legend. A young country lad falls heavily in love with a female water spirit, known as a rusalka in Russian folklore; his aged grandfather who may be a monk tries to warn him against liaisons with such a being but, failing to make much impression on the youngster, tries to protect him with prayers to the Virgin Mary and Jesus, making the sign of the cross over him and making sure the boy does wear a cross when working outdoors. Of course, the old guy and the rusalka end up fighting fiercely for the boy’s soul and the ending is ferocious and tragic indeed.

The combination of painted scenes, objects and characters with stop-motion animation of a kind that appears to blend actions so that colours seem to bleed into one another gives “Rusalka” a very distinctive look that fits its watery, fishy theme well. Viewers are left in no doubt that the real protagonist and antagonist in the story are the old man and the spirit and both characters are complex: the old man may look the stereotyped wise fella who’s seen and done everything yet there are indications in the story that he feels his faith in God isn’t all it should be and it’s a real act of courage for him to take on the powerful rusalka in the storm scene. The rusalka plays the innocent young girl but a very brief scene demonstrates her true malevolent nature. The film hints that the rusalka and the old man met ages ago when the old man was young: he betrayed the rusalka when she was a young girl and she drowned herself in sorrow, becoming a vengeful water spirit as a result. The boy himself is an undeveloped, naive character and his portrayal is the weakest part of the plot: there’s little indication that he feels some remorse for what his Pops had to sacrifice to save his young life. Perhaps if the film had had some dialogue to portray the conflict developing between the boy and the old man, both men’s feelings toward and their relationships with the rusalka, and the larger conflict between faith in God and being attracted to the rusalka and what she represents, the plot might have been stronger, more complex and thoughtful.

Colours in the film tend strongly towards the deep blues and greens with a greyish tint to them, suggesting the power of the water world and the spirits dwelling within. Humans are dressed in drab brown which signifies that they are simple and humble country folk making a living from the land.

At the film’s end, there’s a sense that the old man and the rusalka have ended their life-long feud and the young man can forge ahead in life, having learned his lesson. “Rusalka” is a beautiful, dreamy film to watch and its delicate look combined with strong colours and a fluid, bleeding flow from one action to the next warrant at least two viewings.


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